January 22, 2012
The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time.
Jesus said to Simon and Andrew, “Follow me.” And immediately they left their nets and followed him.
The call of God comes and people respond to it in different ways.
God tells Jonah to go to Nineveh, a great city in the Assyrian Empire—in what is today Iraq. Jonah was to warn the people of this wicked city that God's punishment was at hand.
Jonah, hearing the call of God,
Jonah, angry that God would show mercy on such people,
Jonah hops on a ship heading for Tarshish, in southern Spain, probably the farthest point away from Nineveh to which he could sail.
The trip, as you know, doesn’t go as planned. Running from God is like that.
Bad weather comes up. The sailors in the storm tossed boat discover Jonah’s disobedience is the cause of their danger. At his suggestion, they throw Jonah overboard and then pray to his God as if their lives depended on it.
As I read through this familiar story again in recent weeks, I was struck by just how strange it is. Oh, I don’t mean that part about the big fish and Jonah’s three days in its belly. One person said that given everything else that happens in the story of Jonah, that’s one of the most believable parts of the story.
What seems so strange—incredible—is that the God of Israel would send a prophet to warn the people of another nation, an enemy people. It is strange, of course, unless it slowly dawns on us—as it dawned on Jonah—that God’s love and concern extend to all people, even to those whom we would call enemies, even those whose religion is not the same as ours.
It’s not a word that is easily accepted. Jonah couldn’t, wouldn’t accept such a word the first time it came to him. He needed some time in a fish’s stomach before God’s word could come to him a second time.
Take some time this week to read through all four chapters of that short story about Jonah. You’ll discover just how difficult it was for Jonah to hear and accept the call of God.
In contrast to what we heard of Jonah, this morning we also heard of the quick responses of Peter, Andrew, James, and John. Their acting immediately might be troubling when compared to our own sluggishness.
Give us some time to think about this.
It’s good, then, to listen to this story of the call of the disciples with Jonah’s experience echoing in our minds and hearts. Not everyone needs to respond right away. It’s OK to take some time to think about this—even if it has to be done in the belly of a fish.
Our situation today is vastly different from that of the men and women who first followed Jesus.
We are never called to be imitators of the first disciples. Dropping nets and leaving boats are not required of us. The tasks that we have are unique to our time and we will discover them only if we take the risk of following where Christ will lead us now. The call to follow comes to us as we are—harried or at leisure, at the top of our game or still striving. The call to follow comes to us even whether we are religious or not.
Of course, as we continue to read through the Gospel of Mark, it becomes apparent that while these fishermen were quick to leave their boats and respond to the call of Jesus, they really had very little understanding of what they were getting into. Over and over they failed to grasp the message of Jesus. I don’t know about you, but I find a great deal of comfort in that.
Jonah wanted some time to think things over. Simon and Andrew hopped out of the boat without the slightest idea of what was in store for them.
The poet, W.H. Auden, wrote at the end of his Christmas Oratorio For the Time Being: “He is the Way. Follow him through the Land of Unlikeness; You will see rare beasts, and have unique adventures.”
If we will follow Jesus, then, we will find ourselves going to the places where he goes. With him we will meet the people he meets. Those places, those people may turn out to be nothing like what we know or what we would expect. As we follow along we start to see that Jesus is the One most “unlike” our understanding and expectations.
Mark gives us a geography of the Land of Unlikeness—hints about the place to which our following might lead us.
We follow Jesus to the place of prayer, a place apart from the noise of the world, apart from the demands of our rapid-paced lives.
How hard it is to follow to such a place! The clamor and press of life up front lead us to keep busy, rarely slowing down.
But we watch as Jesus pulls back even as his ministry is just beginning. He invites active souls to slow down for a time.
Since prayer offers us the most intimate of relationships with God, the invitation to pray is also an invitation to know God. Intimacy with God is at once God's greatest desire and our deepest need. It is said that "true prayer enlivens the heart of the Christian, empowers the ministry of the church, and influences the destiny of the world."[i]
We follow Jesus to places where healing is brought to our world. Prayer is never confined to quiet meditation or peaceful feelings. It always expresses itself in concrete deeds of love. The ministry of Jesus was one of healing the sick, of saying “No” to the powers of destruction—and more importantly, of saying “Yes” to all that gives life. The ministry of Jesus brought God’s “Yes” to life in its fullest. Where there is brokenness, those who are following Christ will be found.
We follow Jesus in bringing good news to all people. He eats with sinners and outcasts—is there no one that he will not love? He speaks to the poor and to the rich a message of the nearness of the reign of God. No person, no group is excluded from the love of God that is drawing near.
We follow Jesus to resurrection—from death to life. Resurrection is not what was done once but what is in the making now. Resurrection is the process whereby we who were dead are finding new life and sharing that life with others. The British New Testament scholar N.T. Wright put it this way recently: “When Jesus rose again God’s whole new creation emerged from the tomb, introducing a world full of new potential and possibility. Indeed, precisely because part of that new possibility is for human beings themselves to be revived and renewed, the resurrection of Jesus doesn’t leave us passive, helpless spectators. We find ourselves lifted up, set on our feet, given new breath in our lungs, and commissioned to go and make new creation happen in the world.”[ii]
Prayer, healing, good news, resurrection—our understanding is limited, our vision is dim. What are we getting into?
And yet, still we hear the call: “Follow me.” The One who offers this invitation is so compelling that we follow along as best as we know how. Maybe we even discover new ways of walking along with him.
As we follow, we discover the same thing that the earliest followers did: we are not alone. We are not praying or healing or discovering new life on our own. We are not sent out to tell the good news of God's love by ourselves. By the Spirit of God, the risen and living Christ is with us. The mission of the church in the world is not ours. It is the work of Christ, whom we follow.
Yes, our situation today is vastly different from that of the men and women who first heard and responded to the call of Jesus.
But I do find one similarity. People are still hoping for some good news.
We live in a dangerous and uncertain world. We are moving through a time of enormous political and economic and technological change. Our uneasiness and uncertainty grows. The powers that would destroy are still strong. There are places where violence and death reigns. There are places of deep shadows.
And yet, even in the darkness we hear good news. God is near to us.
The message of Jesus is “The realm of God has come near.” Uncertain, yet in hope, we speak that same message. We say: “In Jesus Christ, God has entered our world, has known our joys and sorrows, has died the death of all who live, and—take note for this is the truly amazing part—in dying Jesus Christ has conquered death for us and all that is alive.”
Jesus was not the end, but the beginning. In his life, death, and resurrection, Jesus was the start of God’s involvement with creation in a new way. The light of God is still dawning on this world, showing life in a new way. That is our hope, our faith, even when the night surrounds us.
We know how the story in the Bible ends—“They left and followed.” And for nearly 2000 years women and men have done just that. They have prayed and brought healing. They have told others that the God who created is also the God who loves each creature. They have brought the light of Christ into countless darkened corners.
Those who followed have succeeded marvelously and failed disastrously.
The call is still the same: "Follow me."
The story of the call of the disciples is at the beginning of the Gospel of Mark. And that's where it belongs. To follow is to begin.
Follow in living and in dying.
Follow to new resurrected life. Walk in the light—for that is where you wanted to be all along.
[i] Ben Campbell, An Invitation to Pray
[ii] N.T. Wright, Simply Christian, pg. 116.